Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Paralympics are Brilliant!

After weeks of shilly shallying about going to the Paralympics I finally decided I wasn’t going. I was too busy with work, I’d had a busy and tiring weekend on Coll, I’d had a busy weekend with Mum and Dad’s Golden Wedding Anniversary I’ve got two weeks of solid travelling coming up and the Berlin Marathon at the end of the month, so it was definitely the right decision…. Sorted.

Olympic Stadium from our hotel

So add one night watching the Paralympic opening ceremony and one bottle of what proved to be a damn fine red wine and I found myself excitedly the owner of two tickets (bargain at £15 each) to the Paralympic Table Tennis at the Excel Centre for last Saturday.

A quick blitz on the credit card secured two Virgin rail tickets from Carlisle to London and I cashed in some Holiday Inn loyalty points for two nights at the Staybridge Suites in Stratford. So 48 hours after having definitely not been going to the Paralympics, Keith and Ann are heading down to Carlisle for the 6 o’clock train to Euston…… Sorted!

In keeping with the last minute, low budget nature of the event, pre-train dinner consisted of fish and chips in the waiting room at Carlisle station like a pair of proper Glasgow Jakeys. With the lightest smallest backpacks we could find, extra bars of chocolate and obligatory (for me) train spotter’s magazine, kindle and iPhone in hand, Mr Branson’s train rolled in exactly on time at 17:52. Ann was strangely unexcited when I said “oh it’s an 11 car Pendolino, rather than a 9 car one” despite stoically remaining at my side I’m sure inside she wanted to say “I’m really not with him”.

For the uninitiated I’ve been regularly travelling from Carlisle to London for years, when the nice shiny new Virgin Pendolino tilting trains were introduced I was working for a company who were happy to splash out on 1st class rail tickets. The fact that each train had 4 1st class and 5 standard class coaches was a bonus for me, it wasn’t unusual for me to sit in splendid isolation with a carriage entirely to myself in 1st class being served unlimited wine and coffee, whilst the great unwashed were crammed into standard (or more appropriately steerage) class like doomed unfortunates on an 18th century slave ship.
On moving to my current company, I was hoist by my own petard as no-one travels first class and I unceremoniously joined the ranks of the great unwashed and with the rabid vehemence of a religious convert I scowled with envy at the rich b*&^ards in 1st class, whilst simultaneously fighting for
a- my reserved seat
b- a seat with a power socket or
c- just a seat at all

In-flight catering Virgin Rail style

So the addition of two carriages with an extra 150 seats is a BIG thing when you’ve spent many journeys shared with loud drunks; loud snorers; loud children and just generally loud people. Settling into a not too busy carriage with respective ½ bottles of red & white wine we enjoyed an on time and pleasant journey.

We touched down at Euston around half nine. Quick top up on the Oyster card and it was off to negotiate the joys of the Northern Line and the DLR to the hotel, with a growing child-like excitement as we could see the by now familiar shape of the Olympic Stadium looming ever larger at our destination. Stratford Station was busy, actually it was very very busy especially as we negotiated our way against the flow of the 80,000 plus people leaving the Olympic park, but the organisation and stewarding was flawless and friendly. 5 minutes later we were heading up to the reception on the 12th floor at the Staybridge Suites, the closest hotel you can get to the Olympic park, the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing all the way, I’ve never seen so many Union Jacks, Team GB kit and people smiling.
Our breakfast view

Saturday dawned, greyish and overcast and with the muted drone of some-one stewarding crowds through a megaphone, breakfast on the 12th floor overlooking the Aquatics Centre and the park security check area was very civilised, onto the balcony for the obligatory Kodak moment and to gape at the never ending stream of people heading into the park, and I really do mean a stream of people. I’ve been to Rugby Internationals at Murrayfield and Cardiff and the crowds heading into the park dwarfed (Sorry no Paralympic pun intended) these, it was a constant stream of people for over an hour, no wonder we couldn’t get tickets for the park!

Duly fed and watered we jumped on the DLR over to Excel, the first score of the day was discovering that our day pass meant we could go into any of the sessions throughout the day as long as there were free seats, so it was straight into the Sitting Volleyball where Germany beat Russia 3 – 2, the atmosphere was great and it was slightly surreal to be sitting watching a Paralympic event in the flesh rather than on TV. We sat behind part of the German contingent who blew apart the dull and dour German stereotype by cheering, bouncing and generally behaving in a very enthusiastic and un-Germanic way. Great commentary, lots of thumping music, Mexican waves and a nearly full arena made for a great start to our Paralympic experience.

We opted for the Judo Arena next, to see our first Team GB Athlete, Sam Ingram, unfortunately he got gubbed, and since what I know about Judo could comprehensively cover a postage stamp we opted to move on. Next up was Powerlifting, women’s 52Kg category where GB’s Natalie Blake was competing, this time the arena was packed and the cheers and foot stamping when Natalie emerged were incredible, unfortunately with two “no lifts” called she left the competition. We were able to watch Nigeria’s Joy Onaolepo take Gold and a new world record with a lift of 131Kg, the cheers were deafening, no partisan crowd here!

Next up was table tennis, now call me naïve but when you watch it on the telly you only see one table, in the hall itself there are 8 games taking place simultaneously! Now I’m a man and therefore am genetically incapable of multi-tasking so 8 simultaneous games was a sensory overload in extreme. I’d just get focussed on the Turkey v Sweden table, when a cheer from the other side of the hall would distract me. Taking a minute to work out which table the cheer related to and whatever fantastic point had been won another cheer from the other side would tear me away, then I’d try to get back to Turkey v Sweden and find someone had scored 5 points. There were two GB players, but the Ainslie jinx was by now firmly in place and they both got gubbed too, despite all this it was brilliant.

Our final session of the day was back to the sitting volleyball, where USA comprehensively beat Slovenia and the by now familiar razzmatazz was just as good second time round, I never get tired of singing and clapping along to Queens “we will Rock you”. The most humbling moment of the day had to be the Games maker volunteer whose job was to wheel out a glorified shopping trolley full of prosthetic limbs, and hand them back to the athletes. Now I’m an athlete of sorts but I’m going to stop moaning about having sore legs after a run, as at least I don’t get mind handed back to me from a trolley! One nice touch was the synchronised floor mopping at every interval.

DLR back to Stratford going against the crowd again and a quick burger and a bottle of wine, whilst craning to see the big screen telly in the restaurant for the highlights from the Aquatics centre. We’ve just had a unique and fantastic day watching Sitting volleyball; Powerlifting; Table Tennis and Judo, 4 sports I’d hardly heard off a month ago.

Cutty Sark
After the highs of Saturday, Sunday was a bit of a come down, with no tickets available for any events. On the assumption that Andrew and Steven hadn’t burnt the house down in our absence and would be expecting lavish gifts as a reward, we stocked up on Paralympics GB T-shirts in the deserted Westfield Centre then headed for Greenwich for a look round the refurbished Cutty Sark and then a river bus back to central London, heading up to Trafalgar Square where BT’s London Live was the target.

A quick 10 minutes in Trafalgar square and we decided that London Live was more dead than live, with no live coverage of the Games, merely a big screen promise that some band I’ve never heard of would be “coming up next”. After an afternoon worth of general mooching around and a pint in an Irish bar in Chinatown it was back to Euston for our return journey. A pretty packed train this time and we settled in next to a party of 4 girls from Glasgow, who’d been down for a girly weekend and were all looking very glamorous when they got on. Coming back home by train always seems to take longer and by the time we reached Carlisle the glamour kit had been swopped for jogging bottoms and baggy sweatshirts, they’d splayed themselves out in a contortionist variety of sleeping positions and young Laura was crying “I’ve not slept in 48 hours, I’m soooo tired, and I’ve got college tomorrow” and her blond hair had gone from carefully coiffured party girl to “morning after mop”, meanwhile I’m sure I was still looking like George Clooney (in my mind anyway).

Getting home close to midnight made for a very long weekend, but worth every second, the Paralympics are Brilliant!


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